Listening Different: Musicians vs Non-Musicians

May 25, 2016

blog - Listening Different - Musicians vs Non-Musicians

It’s the end of May, and summer finally feels like it’s right around the corner. Now that the sun is shining, the days are getting longer, and the beaches are opening, if you’re anything like me, you’ve already got some concerts, shows, or festivals all lined up for the summer. But as you prepare for your show, has it ever occurred to you that the people up on the stage may hear music in a very different way from most of the people in the audience? It’s true that musician’s brains are usually a bit more creative than most, and we’ve discussed a few times the way an education in music can literally change the way your brain functions and even how some of its physical structures form, but can music really even change the way we hear it?

The Brain and Music

Anyone who has been emotionally moved by a piece of music is well aware that listening can be an extremely personal experience Every individual listener is influenced by their own emotional state, personality, knowledge, experience, and beliefs. And while many of the physical processes are the same, those with musical experience hear music in a significantly different way from the vast majority of listeners.

For reasons we aren’t completely sure of yet, the human brain is divided into two halves that, while connected, work mostly independent of one another. Most people know that the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, and vice versa. In addition to moving your body about, the left half of your brain is thought to handle logic, reasoning, and rationality. Basically, if you have to “think” about something, you’re using your left brain. The right side is thought of as the creative side, dealing with colour, insight, daydreaming, and imagination. If you can say you “acted on instinct,” you’ve used your right brain.

Listening to music is an activity that requires the use of your entire brain. The left hemisphere of your brain fires in response to the tempo and rhythm, and tries to think ahead, anticipating the next thing to come. The right side of your brain gets excited by the melody, the creativity, and the volume. This is fairly universal among all healthy brains, musician or not, and what’s even more interesting, we can disrupt how this works. There is a medical procedure, called the Wada Test, that is used to determine which half of the brain is controlling a particular body function, and it has been used to study music’s effect on the brain. In one such test, the Wada Test, which sedates one half of the brain at a time, was used to put the right hemisphere of participant’s brains to sleep, before asking them to sing a familiar tune. Interestingly, they could all recall the words and rhythm, but all element of the melody were completely lost. The singers could no longer distinguish between rhythm and melody.

Musicians vs Non-Musicians

There has been a surprising amount of science done in the area of music, and how human beings perceive it. And thanks to science’s need for control groups, a lot of the work done has looked at the differences in how musicians and non-musicians listen, and given what you now know about the brain, the findings may not be all that surprising.

Non-musicians tend to simply “experience” music. Those without any training have a tendency to just allow the music to wash over them. Their main concern with the music is how it makes them feel, or how intellectually meaningful or profound it is. You’ve undoubtedly heard someone with no musical experience say something like, “I don’t know music, but I know what I like!” These people are listening to music mostly with their right hemisphere. The experience, while exhilarating and potentially meaningful, is passive, with little to no analyzing going on in the left side of the brain. This is pure enjoyment.

The brain of a musician, however, does a lot more work, even when simply listening for enjoyment. A musician, by definition, has had countless hours of musical training and practice, which has a profound effect on the way they process music. Thanks to this training and experience, musicians tend to process the music the hear and play mostly on the left side of their brain. The brains of musicians have been shown to analyze a number of different musical aspects while they listen:

  • Harmonies – The musician brain listens for and determines which chords are being used, as well as the rate of harmonic change. They are also listening for if the chord change comes on or off the beat.
  • Melodies – The left side of a musician brain listens for the tonal centre, the scale, and melodic contour. Studies have also shown that musicians can identify and organize melodies much better than non-musicians.
  • Rhythm – The rhythms of both the melody and bass line are also analyzed by the musician’s brain. Many non-musicians are also fairly sensitive to rhythms, but they simply do not process them as efficiently, or even in the same way, as a musician.
  • Expression – While everyone appreciates an artist’s personal expression through music, a musician’s brain is actively searching for it. Listening for the particular nuances of an individual interpretation, musicians training and experience lead them to unconsciously search for dynamics, vibrato, phrasing, rubato, articulation, improvisation, and more.

All this higher processing that is done by the brain of a musician is a direct result of their training and experience. When you boil it all down, musicians think about music this way while non-musicians do not simply because they have a greater knowledge and understanding of the mechanics of it. By the simple virtue of this experience, their brain has no choice but to pick apart any music heard to understand it better.

The bottom line is, while non-musicians are completely capable of enjoying music, they simply do not have the deeper understanding of each part of the whole to process it as deeply and fully as their musician peers.